April 6, 2014
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Reverend Stephen Caine
37: 1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, NRSV)
Let us pray: Generous God, out of your great abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical. Help us to hold lightly the fading things of this earth and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom, so that what we are and do and say may be our gifts to you through Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
It has been a couple of years ago since my family took a spring break trip to Washington, DC. We drove through East Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, DC and Maryland. Many of the places we visited were Monuments, Cemeteries and Crypts. We saw Washington and Lee University named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee. We toured the beautiful campus and the historic Lee Memorial Chapel where Robert E. Lee’s crypt is. We even saw where his horse, “Traveler” is buried. Then we went to Charlottesville, Virginia and toured Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. There is a family cemetery on the Grounds where Jefferson is buried along with other members of his family.
Then we went to DC and walked the Mall. We saw the U.S. Capital, the White House, the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial and the stars that represent the soldiers who died, the Korean War Memorial and the haunting real-life faces on the statues, the Lincoln Memorial, the Viet Nam War Memorial and the names; name after name after name of war dead, and we finished with the Holocaust Memorial, where a pile of shoes were the haunting reality of all that had died. These shoes were worn by Holocaust victims who were forced to remove them as they were stripped and herded into the gas chamber to their deaths. The images, sites and sound of the dead were all around us.
The next day we visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and his burial place. Then we went to Arlington and the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial, and the struggle depicted on the faces of those brave marines as they fought to capture Iwo Jima, an important island in the Pacific Theater in the war with Japan. The next day we traveled to Annapolis, Maryland and toured the United States Naval Academy. We were blown away by the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel and underneath the chapel is the crypt of the great Commodore John Paul Jones, the naval leader of the American Revolution and the founder of the US Navy. While all of these memorials, homes and monuments were very impressive, what touched me the most was our visit to Arlington National Cemetery. I have seen the Cemetery on TV and in pictures but seeing it in person is breath taking. As far as the eye can see white headstones. It has been called the garden of stone. There are Army Private’s buried in the same hallowed ground as Presidents and Five Star Generals. Inside Arlington National Cemetery, high on a hill overlooking D.C. is the most impressive of all sites we saw. It was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. The Unknown Soldiers entombed there are from:
- World War I
- World War II
- The Korean War
- The Vietnam War
The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded by a special guard the 3rd Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”) of the U.S. Army. We watched this particular guard march his solemn march back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It was a highly emotional scene.
So, as I read Ezekiel 37 this week it brought back many of those images of walking in the beauty of that hallowed ground acutely aware of the supreme sacrifice these men and women made for our freedoms in this great land. I thought of all of those bones, those bodies, those soldiers, those men and women buried there and what they did, what they died for – our nation and an image for our nation, our world, today – can these bones live?
There are not just a few bones lying around; no these bones have been dead for a long time – dry, white bones.[i] No life left. No chance. Dead. Dead. Dead.
In order to understand how the bones came to be in this valley, we must understand the history of the Israelites. On Mount Sinai, the people entered into a covenant with God. God promised the people that if they were faithful, they would be put in a land where they would become a people and not just a band of slaves wandering in the wilderness. They would become the nation of Israel, the people of God. The people were faithful, and God delivered them into the land. Eventually a king was placed on a throne.[ii]
Over time, however, the people of Israel turned away from their covenant with God. They were not worshipping God faithfully. They were not taking care of the widows and orphans around them. They were concerned with having more wealth, more power, and more stature. They no longer defined themselves as the people of God. Instead they saw themselves as a political nation.[iii]
The nation of Israel as they knew it didn’t last. It was destroyed, and the people were sent into exile in a foreign land. The people were reduced to this pile of bones. The people cried out to God, their hope was lost, they were cut off completely. The people of Israel no longer knew who they are, they had lost their identity, their way and they were dead.[iv]
It is in that depressing, dead place that God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live? I can just imagine Ezekiel wanting to say, “Well of course not. They are dead. Dead bones don’t live!”
But instead Ezekiel says hesitantly, “Only you know God.” And that is the crux of our faith.
Only God knows—
- Where life can come from death…
- Where hope can arise from despair…
- Where joy and laughter follow grief…
- Where hope can arise from despair…
We might not see any evidence of it because all we see is dead, dry and lifeless bones.
And that is where our faith comes in because God calls us to believe without seeing. The Lord’s words provide room for hope. “Hope is believing in the face of the evidence and then watching the evidence change…” In a dark valley of death, with Israel lost in deep exile, God commands Ezekiel to speak words in the face of death.[v] Can these bones live?
Only you know, God. So, in the meantime; we worship and we pray and we trust in God. We remember too all that God has done, and we tell it. We tell our faith story and we begin to see how it is part of God’s story… we trust that God can make even old, dried out, dead bones, get up and dance…Can these bone live? Only God knows!
Let us pray: O Almighty God, you alone can transform our unruly wills and desires of sinful hearts: Grant that we your people may love the thing which you command, and follow what you promise; so that among the many changes in the world around us, our hearts may be fixed on thee. Amen.
[i] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.
[ii] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.
[iii] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.
[iv] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.
[v] Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine